A Simple Life (Tao jie)
Hong Kong (2011) Dir. Ann Hui
Ah Tao (Deannie Yip) is the long serving housekeeper to film producer Roger Leung (Andy Lau), having looked after him and his family for over sixty years, with Roger being the only one left in Hong Kong. Old age begins to catch up on Ah Tao and she suffers a stroke but true to her altruistic nature, Ah Tao refuses to be a burden to Roger and tells him she wants to go into a care home. Suddenly after all the years of being cared for, Roger is now the one caring for Ah Tao.
This touching tale is based on the true story of Roger Lee (the film’s producer and co-writer) and his housekeeper and offers a melancholic but poignant look at a relationship which may seem mystifying to us in the west, as the clear “upstairs downstairs” divide between servants and masters is much more clearly defined over here, whereas in Hong Kong, Ah Tao is pretty much a member of the family and loved and respected as such. Director Ann Hui eschews the usual bombast that Hong Kong cinema is known for to deliver a simple, striped bare character study of two people finding themselves in a reversal of roles, discovering along the way not just how much both mean to each other as well as the importance of caring.
There is no real plot as such, we simply follow the unfolding the events as Ah Tao has to acclimatise to relying on others after being partially paralysed, from which she eventually recovers but other ailments common with old age are waiting in the wings to strike. Ah Tao moves into what is a fairly shoddy looking care home where many of the other residents are far worse off that Ah Tao health wise, something which bothers her but once she regains her strength, she is back to being a willing assistant helper for them. Roger’s initial reaction is to throw money at the problem, offering to pay for the care home (which is refused), essentially not taking this seriously at all. But when the washing starts to pile up and the take away food loses its flavour, Roger begins to appreciate everything Ah Tao did for him and makes a concerted effort to do as much for Ah Tao as he can, or as much she will allow him to.
Ann Hui’s slow departure from the usual overwrought melodrama to this more reflective and dare I say, European style of low key filmmaking reaches its maturity with this film and brings with it a huge change of direction for the apparently ageless Andy Lau. Known for just about everything from silly comedies, to police thrillers to martial arts dramas and historical epics, Lau goes against type and delivers a subdued and understated performance, rich in a nuance and natural charisma that belies his superstar status – indeed this is the foundation for a running joke in which the successful but unassuming looking Roger is mistaken for ordinary workmen instead of a high flying movie executive. It would be fair to say that this performance ranks up their with Lau’s best, taking Roger from a pampered kid to a responsible adult.
Arguably stealing the show and earning every single award bestowed upon her is Deanna Ip, whose character goes on the greater journey, which is exactly what it is. The power of Ip’s performance is absorbing and compelling; you are not just watching an actress playing a role, Ip makes you believe she is enduring every single ache, pain, cold, sniffle, laugh and moment of joy, making the audience feel like they are experiencing it with her. The physical and emotional transformation Ah Tao undergoes is conveyed with incisive conviction and authenticity, no subtle detail overlooked or overdone, Ah Tao’s resilient and humble character remains intact. The natural chemistry between Ip and Lau permeates through the screen as utterly genuine, making one wonder if they were even acting at all.
If having two major Hong Kong stars in this film wasn’t enough, Hui throws in a number of cameos from other well known faces, including an early memorable turn for martial arts legend Sammo Hung and equally legendary director Tsui Hark. The beauty of these appearances is that they all have a purpose in the script and are not just thrown on screen for the sake of it. If the film has a flaw it is in the running time. Pushing close to two hours the material and story feels a little stretched beyond its natural lifespan and as such the pace is a little slow in the first act but once the audience is caught up in the story, the time flies by.
A Simple Life is a deceptively simple film that packs an emotional punch which will leave you breathless. Its beauty is in its honesty and directness and its welcome lack of mawkish sentimentality. A slight trimming of the running time aside, this is exactly how emotional slice-of-life dramas should be made. A Film of the year contender without question.